Fictions of Emancipation

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Carpeaux's Why Born Enslaved! Reconsidered

Edited by Elyse Nelson and Wendy S. Walters

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A critical reexamination of Carpeaux’s bust Why Born Enslaved! and other nineteenth-century antislavery images—this book interrogates the treatment of the Black figure as a malleable political symbol and locus of exoticized beauty

This critical reexamination of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s iconic bust Why Born Enslaved! unpacks the sculpture’s complex and sometimes contradictory engagement with an antislavery discourse. Noted art historians and writers discuss how categories of racial difference grew in popularity in the nineteenth century alongside a crescendo in cultural production in France during the Second Empire. By focusing on Why Born Enslaved! and comparing it to works by Carpeaux’s contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as to objects by twenty-first-century artists Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley, this volume explores such key themes as the portrayal of Black enslavement and emancipation; the commodification of images of Black figures; the role of sculpture in generating the sympathies of its audiences; and the relevance of Carpeaux’s sculpture to legacies of empire. The book also provides a chronology of events central to the histories of transatlantic slavery, abolition, colonialism, and empire.

Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Distributed by Yale University Press

Elyse Nelson is assistant curator of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European sculpture in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wendy S. Walters is concentration head in nonfiction and associate professor in the Writing Program of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, New York.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
(March 10, 2022–March 5, 2023)

ISBN: 9781588397447
Publication Date: March 29, 2022
Publishing Partner: Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Distributed by Yale University Press
140 pages, 7 x 9
81 color + b/w illus.
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